Monday, February 14, 2011

Going deep

Psalm 119: 1-8; Matthew 5: 21-37

Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
February 13, 2011

I can’t stand it when Jesus does this. For the past two weeks we’ve heard his gentleness, his compassion, his pastoral side. I guess he was softening up the crowd, turning over the hard soil of their hearts, killing them softly with his words, with his beatitudes song. Then Jesus added some salt and light to the mix, building up the people with a sense of purpose and mission, preparing them for these hard seeds necessary for the kingdom of God.

But before he directs them down the difficult discipleship road ahead, Jesus assures his listeners that the law of God is not going anywhere; that though he has come to give the people the good news, it does not change God’s expectations of us. In fact, it seems that God’s people were just skimming the surface of what God wanted from them, obeying the letter of the law without going to the heart of it. Even though they were living in the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in truth they had made their home in exile. They had become estranged from God and from each other. They had treated God’s law as though it were a to-do list, their salvation as check marks.

Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase The Message tells it like this: “Trivialize even the smallest item in God's Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won't know the first thing about entering the kingdom.” When it comes to Jesus and God’s law, discipleship is all about right living, right relationships. If we aren’t right with God or with each other, how can we do and be what God needs for the beloved community, the kingdom of God?

We’d like to think that when we’re angry or frustrated, in any conflict, in any trouble we might be having, that it’s the other person, the clique, the other team, the competition, the government, other nations that are the problem. Gandhi once said that the only devils running around are the ones in our own hearts and that is where all our battles ought to be fought. Sounds like something Jesus would have said, what he is saying as he delves beneath the surface of the law and goes deep into it.

When we were kids we used to say “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” as a way of warding off the sting of whatever insult was being hurled our way. The truth is, words do hurt. Jesus is saying that words said in anger have the power to kill. We know this from the media attention given to bullying and from the young people who ended their lives. The internet was flooded with messages and resources about how to deal with the bullies in our schools, work places, even in our worship communities.

One of my pastors and my colleague, Rev. Jennifer Gingras, talked about bullying this past fall with the junior high youth group at the Monroe church. Through discussion and role play and telling their own stories they created an art project entitled “In Our Shoes”. The kids brought in an old shoe and decorated it with paint and glitter, writing their truth in fabric marker in the open spaces. Phrases like “Their words will always hurt me” remind us of the responsibility we bear whenever we speak, that hate or angry speech is not really what we mean by free speech. They wrote story cards that were randomly assigned to each shoe and wrote a litany that they then led the congregation with in worship. Through this project, eleven-, twelve- and thirteen-year-olds learned to not turn the other cheek meekly but with active resistance to the bullies in their lives.

Truly, Jesus is making perfect sense when he follows his ‘salt and light’ message with this one. Often when we shine brightly, when we give our unique flavor to the world, it is then that we can become an object of bullying. But bullies aren’t born that way. A bully is someone who suffered some sort of abuse; who never learned to defend themselves nor did they heal from their wounds. We all have our wounds; therefore, we are all capable of bullying, of lashing out at those who are actively being brave and authentic in the midst of their woundedness.

In all these difficult sayings and interpretations of God’s law, Jesus is telling the crowd and us that we can’t treat people as objects, as though it doesn’t matter what goes on in the hamster cage of our minds; as though it doesn’t matter what we say or don’t say. But we all know from personal experience, from being on the receiving end that it does matter. It does hurt to be treated as if we were made from sticks and stones, not the flesh and blood person we are.

So what is Jesus’ solution to this problem? Plucking out our eyes and cutting off our limbs? Making peace with the person who has something against us? At first glance it sounds pretty extreme—and focused solely on the offender rather than on the victim. But it’s not as if Jesus divided the crowd into victims and offenders, telling the victims that they were excluded from this part of the sermon. Offenders were once victims themselves. We’re all capable and culpable. We’ve all had our 15 minutes of bullying. If we’ve scoffed at or discarded someone else’s opinion, tried to close down a discussion, judged someone else’s efforts without offering to help, or taken 10 minutes to say what could be said in two (no wonder it’s called the bully pulpit), then we’ve been a church bully.

It all begins with us: whether or not we’ll put up with bullying, whether or not we will engage in it. Ironically, most bullies are met with more bullying, with angry words said in a whisper, sneering looks behind one’s back, cold shoulders, or by staying away completely. We tend to interpret Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek as being too kind in the face of injury and injustice, so either we flee or we fight back.

Counterprotest signs at a Westboro Baptist Church protest

Actually, when Jesus says to turn the other cheek, in today’s language it means that we need to set boundaries, to clearly communicate and expect what are acceptable behaviors and those that are not. To turn the other cheek is to say that hitting the first time was unacceptable; the second blow reveals the hardness of heart of the offender and the willingness of the victim to show compassion.

The ability to be compassionate and loving toward others is directly related to our ability to accept and love ourselves as we are. If we’re having problems being compassionate toward those who have hurt us, we’re also having problems loving ourselves. The poet W.H. Auden wrote in his poem “The Age of Anxiety”:

“We would rather be ruined than changed.
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the present
And let our illusions die.”

Through his radical interpretation of God’s law, Jesus is reaching out to save us from ourselves and offers an opportunity for us to change. Trouble is, we have to know we’re in need of saving, that indeed, there is no greater enemy than ourselves. 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich believed that sin is necessary in the life of faith because it leads us to self-knowledge, which leads to the acceptance of God’s role in our lives. Here it is again, the first three of the twelve steps: admitted we were powerless, that our lives had become unmanageable; came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.

If you think these steps are only for addicts, you’re right. A bully is someone who is addicted to their own way, and we all have that demon running around inside us. None of us are immune. If we think to ourselves ‘that’s not me’, the only person we’re fooling is ourselves.

How deep are you willing to go with Jesus, both as a person of faith and as a Body of Christ? How have you been hurt by being a part of a church and what part of that hurt are you still holding onto? To whom do you need to go and come to terms with your accuser before offering your gift at the altar of God? What if during the passing of the peace we actually made peace by saying we’re sorry and asking for forgiveness? In what areas of church life and in your own life are you insisting on your own way? What makes it difficult for you to let go of the outcome and trust God?

After I posted my word for 2011, which is ‘forgive’, a blog friend shared a brief, blunt prayer with me that cut like a knife through my ego: “Forgive them. Change me.” May we all be blessed with the courage, humility, and the serenity to offer this prayer each day.



MoCat said...

I love your sermons. And I love your blog. Truth + humor + grace. I want to be just like you when I grow up. :)

Cynthia said...

Thanks, Mo!